The smart Dutch take on teen sex

Despite parents' allowing romantic sleepovers, the Netherlands has one of the lowest youth pregnancy rates


Tracy Clark-Flory
September 8, 2010 4:01AM (UTC)

The Dutch could teach American parents a thing or two about the birds and the bees -- namely, the virtues of respect and acceptance of teenage sexuality. I just stumbled across a fascinating study (via Sociological Images) that compares these divergent cultural attitudes toward doing the nasty (which, by the way, is much less likely to be cast as "nasty" or "dirty" in the Netherlands). The report, "Sex, Love, and Autonomy in the Teenage Sleepover" by sociologist Amy Schalet, spills plenty of ink describing the forbidding and fearful American view of premarital teen sex that is all too familiar to most of us stateside. It's her description of parental attitudes in the Netherlands that really surprises, though.

A 2003 survey "found that two thirds of Dutch fifteen to seventeen-year-olds with steady boy- or girlfriends are allowed to spend the night with them in their bedrooms, and that boys and girls are equally likely to get permission for a sleepover." Schalet writes:

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Dutch parents, by contrast, downplay the dangerous and difficult sides of teenage sexuality, tending to normalize it. They speak of readiness (er aan toe zijn), a process of becoming physically and emotionally ready for sex that they believe young people can self-regulate, provided they've been encouraged to pace themselves and prepare adequately. Rather than emphasizing gender battles, Dutch parents talk about sexuality as emerging from relationships and are strikingly silent about gender conflicts. And unlike Americans who are often skeptical about teenagers' capacities to fall in love, they assume that even those in their early teens fall in love. They permit sleepovers, even if that requires an "adjustment" period to overcome their feelings of discomfort, because they feel obliged to stay connected and accepting as sex becomes part of their children's lives.

More generally, the country's "moral rules cast sexuality as a part of life that should be governed by self-determination, mutual respect, frank conversation, and the prevention of unintended consequence." It's no coincidence that the country has also secured easy access (for both teens and adults) to contraceptives and other sexual healthcare.

The upshot of all this? Dutch teens are giving birth left and right and plagued by STDs! Oh, no, wait -- the truth is actually the opposite of that. "In 2007, births to American teens (ages fifteen to nineteen) were eight times as high as in the Netherlands," reports Schalet, and the Netherlands generally whoops on the states in terms of STD rates, too. What's more, "it also appears that having sex outside of the context of monogamous romantic relationships isn't as common among Dutch adolescents, especially older ones, as among their American counterparts."

None of this surprises me. I grew up in a very atypical American household where my long-term boyfriend was frequently allowed to sleep over. Eventually, he was allowed to move in with us because of serious family issues on his part -- but that's a whole 'nother story, believe me. My point is that I was allowed an unusual degree of autonomy over my own sex life. Instead of sneaking out of the house to have sex in the backseat of a car, I was engaging in playful exploration in my childhood bedroom with my first love -- and my parents were right across the hall the whole time. I had no sense that sex was a naughty or shameful act; it was a fun and meaningful activity to which I felt fully entitled. And you know what? I consistently used condoms, I was on birth control pills and I insisted that both of us were tested for STDs.

I would never claim that sexual freedom is actually the key to safe sex among teens, and my anecdotal experience certainly shouldn't be the basis for public or parental policy. But with regards to teen pregnancy and STD rates, the numbers just don't lie: We need to be paying attention to the Netherlands.


Tracy Clark-Flory

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